Saturday, November 17, 2007

To Buy or Rent? (And I'm Not Talking About Housing)

It's difficult to fathom how bad off the music industry would be today if not for Steve Jobs. The business is in bad enough shape as it is, but the itunes music store has become enough of a finger in the dyke to allow the moguls of music to refrain from jumping off ledges quite yet.

Jobs is credited with realizing something that few others did a few years back, when he insisted that itunes customers be able to pay a per-song fee for downloads. The prevailing notion at the time was that the future of the music industry was a subscription based model. For a monthly fee, customers could access almost every song ever recorded- but they wouldn't be allowed to download them. Jobs told Rolling Stone:

People don't want to buy their music as a subscription. They bought 45's; then they bought LP's; then they bought cassettes; then they bought 8-tracks; then they bought CD's. They're going to want to buy downloads. People want to own their music. You don't want to rent your music .

This week, Marvel Comics announced that they were putting over 3,000 comic books on-line, and adding 20 per week. For a subscription of $10 a month, or $5 per month if they commit for a year, fans can access the complete library. For perspective, a single issue of a new comic book these days goes for about $3. However, readers can not download any of the comic books. If their subscription lapses, they no longer have access to any of them.

This last point was met with consternation and lamentation on comic fan message boards. One poster, calling himself "Dr. Shallot" after an obscure 1970s Spider-Man villain, had this to say:
"When it comes to comics I like to own the material, either hard copy of digital, not rent." I posed him this question: "What's the difference between renting comics and renting movies? Who can afford to buy everything they want?" His response:
I suppose it comes down to personality quirks. I have no problem renting movies, taking books out of the library, etc. I realize that it's probably just me but at least in regards to comics I like to own what I read.

When I was younger I benefited from having a group of friends who were all into different comics. One loved Avengers, another X-Men, my brother loved Iron Man, etc. As a result we often would read each other's books. However, it got to a point where I was buying everything, and when asked why I simply stated that I wanted to have my own copy.
I can understand this "personality quirk." I get a kick out of having my 2,000+ comic books in 10 "drawer boxes." I take pride in my 12 shelves of books. It sometimes gives me a warm glow inside just to glance at my bookshelf and consider all the associations that these books have for me.

But what if I could trade in my book collection for a digital library? The technology will one day exist to allow reading on-screen to be just as convenient (and portable) as reading bound paper. What if, for the price of one book per month, I had access to every book ever published? I'd toss all my books in a second. Actually, I'd probably donate them to libraries, assuming they were still wanted. And if the experience of reading a digital comic could equal the old-fashioned "analog" comic? I'd give my comic books to trick-or-treaters.

Looking at the situation rationally, if the fidelity of the experience is equal and the cost of renting is low enough, there is no reason to not embrace the subscription based service. As for the argument that you lose everything if you let your subscription lapse--yes, but you gain everything back when you re-subscribe. To re-visit Steve Jobs's argument, people want to own their music not for any logical reason, but simply because they have simply owned music in the past. But how many unloved records, tapes, CDs, and now mp3s have existed in the history of the world? Have people really got their moneys worth by buying music?

Because my primary means of consuming music is in the car, I subscribe to XM Satellite Radio. Someday, when wireless networks blanket the country and we can get the Internet in our cars, I will subscribe to a music service that gives me access to the vast history of recorded music for the price of one CD a month. Of course, this is assuming Steve Jobs hasn't destroyed the music industry with his antiquated itunes music store.


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